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West African Textiles

West African Textiles

  • Baiyinah Brookins

West African Textiles

The Woven Kente sells beautiful and unique wearable products, mostly made from West African cloth. Whether it’s a hat, a bag, a mask, or a fan pack, they all contain mudcloth or Ankara (wax print fabric), kente, or bazin mixed with contemporary silhouettes. Traditionally, cloth was naturally dyed with vegetable and mineral dyes, as well as clay and charcoal to introduce patterns and color on the cloth. Nowadays, wax batik, tie-dye, starch resist, and stitched and folded resist and are typically used. Products made from these textiles enable diasporic wearers to proudly celebrate African heritage, spirituality, culture, and history.

Bazin

Bazin cloth from Mali, sometimes referred to as “queen of fabrics,” is well-known for its luxurious feel and bright, bold hues. It is often used to create incredible party attire, religious garments, and interior décor items such as cushions and curtains.

Bazin is made using specialized dying techniques. It starts as plain white cloth. Then it is batiked or painted with wax, and dyed a range of colors. The process leaves undyed patterns that make each piece of fabric unique. The maker then washes the material in a starch bath and softens it with a wooden stick. The next step is to raise and sew the patterns with gold or silver thread to add even more intricate details. The whole process is manual and the results are truly special.

Bazin cloth is soft, and has a shiny leather-like appearance when viewed from afar. It dances with movement, and its lustrous shine creates intrigue with each sway.

Asante kente

You’ll find kente cloth in some of our masks and fanny packs. The term kente means basket and it refers to the checkerboard pattern of the cloths.

Asante kente is the product of the Asante or Ashanti, a dominant tribe in present day Ghana. In the early days, the people used locally grown cotton but they imported the silk since Ghana did not have silk moths. In those days, the cloth was associated with Asante royalty who wore it to showcase their spiritual power as was found later in their shrines to their deities. In the modern world, the kente is worn by all people but mostly among the wealthy and high society.

Ewe kente

Ewe kente is the product of the Ewe tribe in present-day Ghana and Togo. The Ewe traditionally used horizontal loom weaving. Later, they adopted the double heddle frame loom style of kente weaving from the Asante, their rulers. However, the Ewe use cotton instead of rayon and silk and they add floating symbolic weft patterns representative of proverbs and aphorisms.

It should be noted that in the olden days the Ewe kente was not limited to use by royalty, but was associated with special occasions and prestige. You’ll find greater variety in the patterns and functions in Ewe kente and that the symbolism of the patterns are more linked to daily life than to wealth or social standing.

Ankara or African wax print

Ankara or African wax print is found everywhere in West Africa. It is a colorful industrially produced cotton cloth with batik-inspired printing. Color intensity is the same on the front and back of the cloth. We work mostly with Ghanaian wax print known for its exciting colors and tribal motifs. It is 100% cotton dyed using batik, a wax resistant dyeing technique that originated in Indonesia.

In West Africa, a person can communicate social status by having the latest designs and wearing carefully chosen meaningful patterns. Some West Africans use the fabric as a courting gift and include it in a woman’s dowry. The cloth is even essential garb at funerals.

Bògòlanfini or mudcloth

Bògòlanfini (shortened to Bogolan) is a traditionally woven (handmade) mudcloth from the Bambara people of Mali, that dates back to the 12 century A.D. The slightly beige cotton found in Mali is handwoven into narrow strips of cotton cloth, which are then stitched together to create a piece of cloth. The cloth is dyed with a combination of plant dyes and mud that has been fermented up to one year. The staining and sun-drying process may take up to four days. Some of the fabrics contain various adinkra symbols that represent a variety of West African concepts.

Since mudcloth is handwoven, the thickness, sizes and weight vary. This cloth plays an important role in Malian culture and symbolizes Malian cultural identity. It is exported worldwide for use in fine art, home décor, and fashion.

Korhogo cloth

Do you know what inspired Picasso’s paintings? In the 1930s, he went to Korhogo, a regional market town north of Côte d’Ivoire. In the villages around this town, the Senufo people use fermented mud ink to paint animal and human forms onto handwoven cotton cloth. This is what Picasso copied. We haven’t used this mudcloth yet in our products.

Aso-Oke

Aso-Oke is the most impressive hand-woven strip cloth from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. It requires a high level of expertise and lots of time to weave it. Traditionally, the people hand-spin the thread from cotton or locally grown or imported silk. Then they dye it up to fourteen times to achieve the deep blue hues they desire, and then they use special techniques to make it color-fast. Then they weave the thread on a double-heddle narrow loom to create a forty foot by four-inch band of cloth. A tailor then cuts the cloth into pieces, sews it together and sometimes hand-embroiders it. Outfits made from Aso-Oke are worn during major ceremonies.

Other West African fabrics

Other West African fabrics that we haven’t used yet, but may interest you include:

  • Ndop, a resist dyed indigo cloth from the Bamileke of Cameroon.
  • Kaasa, a woolen blanket from the Fulani of the Niger Delta in Mali.
  • Fila, a dye-painted cloth from the Senufo tribe of the Ivory Coast.
  • Dida, a raffia cloth from the Dida people of the Ivory Coast.
  • Asafo, appliqued flags from the Fante tribe of Ghana.
  • Andinkra, a stamp printed funeral cloth from the Ashanti (Asante) of Ghana.
  • Adire, an indigo cloth from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria.

Image: Hausa man at Indigo Dye Pits Kano Nigeria 

Image via Smithsonian Learning Lab - Smithsonian Institute  

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